Guest Blog: The Cognitive Science Behind Climate Change – Tom Rand

This past weekend, I attended the Beyond Green Youth Summit in Toronto, organized by Earth Day Canada.  There were many phenomenal speakers, one of whom was Tom Rand.  For those of you who do not know him, Dr. Rand is a software entrepreneur turned Clean Energy Champion.  He explained the reasons why many people are unable to accept climate change (never mind do anything about it) from a cognitive science perspective.  This is the first time that anyone has ever explicitly explained this to me.  I believe that it is essential information to know, which is why I want to share my new understandings.

Dr. Rand referred to “denial’s siren song”; how seducing it is to pretend that climate change does not exist, as the consequences are scary to face.  Passive denial is the most impactful, “everyone is guilty of it, even me at some points”, he admits.  He used the example of parents telling their kids to close their eyes and count to 10 if they think that they see a monster under the bed and when they open their eyes it will be gone.  Society needs to stop closing its eyes and hoping that climate change is going to disappear- it is not going to happen!

Despite what conventional economics says, humans are not rational creatures!  We don’t believe things based on data, we believe things based on what people say who are close to us in our lives (this is proven by research).  Dr. Rand explained the current perspective that if you just provide people with the appropriate scientific facts on climate change, then people will clearly change their perspectives and behaviours; this is a fallacy!  One’s unconscious mind plays a huge role in shaping one’s worldview (which predetermine one’s belief systems), and these unconscious connections are driven by emotions not rationality.

He outlined some incorrect assumptions that many people hold:

–       Boundless ingenuity (humans can technologically innovate ourselves out of this mess)

–       Future is always better than the past (Dr. Rand believes that climate change is going to make the future ‘worse’ and that is difficult for us to face)

–       The economy grows forever

–       Market fundamentalism (myth of the free market)

–       Hubris (idea that nature is ours to control)

Due to all of these assumptions, everyone’s default (unconscious) position on climate change is that it is not as bad as environmentalists make it out to be.

Dr. Rand described many cognitive defences that people use to support this “anti-climate change position”.

–       Humans avoid cognitive effort

  • It is difficult to think about these complex issues, and critically analyze our previous assumptions, we must be active thinkers/learners and this is a huge challenge.

–       Confirmation bias

  • The idea that we will look for any arguments (regardless of their credibility) to support our opinion and determine it as truth, which is why that anti-climate change campaigns from the fossil fuel industry have proven to be so successful.

–       ‘Affect heuristic’

  • A scientific term which refers to the phenomenon of emotions making impulse decision-making
  • e.g. when someone is asked their opinion on climate change, unconsciously thinks ‘scared, don’t want to deal with it’ (all these brain connections happen in a very short amount of time), and then as a result they say something like “well it is not that big of a deal, there are some scientists who don’t support it”

–       Peer group bias

  • As humans, we are significantly influenced by what our friends think/do, it is easy for a group to become immobilized by no one wanting to break the status quo (everyone wants to fit in)

–       Loss-oriented & short-term thinkers

  • we don’t like losing, often it is easier to focus on the negatives than the positives (so one would think that that would work to our benefit in the climate change discussion)
  • however, we are also short-term thinkers, and this overpowers our focus on losses
  • essentially in people’s unconscious minds, the short-term (financial) losses of proactively addressing climate change outweigh the long-term losses (environmental, social and financial)

Dr. Rand believes that we need to be as clever as MNCs in terms of effective PR about climate change.  Simply telling people how bad it is going to be is not going to work.  He believes that artists communicate better than scientists.  We need all people from all disciplines and walks of life to be advocating for climate change action!

Dr. Rand advocates changing the rules of the game, by putting a price on carbon (which will fundamentally change how the global economy operates).  He is an advocate for working within the system to change it.  He supports evolutionary economics which recognize that the economy is a complex system which ideally operates far from equilibrium (the concept of “equilibrium” taught in economics classes is an artifact in his opinion).

He explained that there is something fundamentally wrong if our first reaction to melting ice caps is to drill for oil!  Climate change is not a left or right issue.  It affects absolutely everyone and the more we understand others perspectives, the more effectively we can affect change!

I will leave you with a quote from Dr. Rand: “be excellent at what you do so you can get your hands on the levers of power”.

Check out Tom Rand at

Author: Lexi Salt, Guest Blogger & University of Waterloo Student


One Comment Add yours

  1. winterseeker says:

    Reblogged this on greenpress~ and commented:
    Some amazing thoughts from my new friend, Lexi Salt – lots to learn!

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